Clyfford Still Paper – Jackson Ellis

clyfford still_jackson ellis

Predating even Jackson Pollock’s iconic drip paintings, Clyfford Still’s breakthrough paintings would be the first and foremost examples of a genuine American art movement: abstract expressionism. His unique colorfield paintings led to a monumental shift in the way painting was perceived as a medium, an accomplishment only fully recognized after his death in 1980. Still’s remarkable discovery was possible only after many long years of experimentation and historical circumstances. However, it is impossible to deny that Still was working with the concepts that would later define his most prominent works from a very early point in his long and successful career.

Born to a farmer in Grandin, North Dakota, 1907 Clyfford Still lived in several extremely rural locations including Spokane, Washington and then later the great open expanses of Alberta, Canada. During these formative years, Still spent most of his time working the farm with his father or painting the great lonely expanse, broken by the occasional grain elevator or plume of train smoke rising to the sky. It was this harsh landscape and meager living that had a radical influence on Clyfford Still and his early work. In one such piece, PH-782, a painting depicting vertical grain elevators in stark contrast to the horizontal land, it is possible to recognize a sort of regionalist style prevalent in the depiction of rural landscape and agricultural architecture. Already using his distinct pallet knife technique to create chiseled planes with intense color, these early architectural works would later arise in abstract forms reminiscent of this same sense of space and composition. As Still grew older and attended art schools, his paintings began taking on more social concerns and would begin to reflect influences from surrealist and American Regionalism styles, not to mention the historical times he was living in.

When the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, artists all over the country would feel the devastating effect of unemployment, however, Still was lucky enough to be attending college at the time and continue his education regardless of the social upheavals. Despite his apparent security, Still’s work from this time reflects the social and working conditions encountered in this era and depicts human subjects becoming one with the tools they work with. Having been attending college he was now more in touch with the art world than he was during his earliest years, resulting in some striking similarities to other art movements at the time. For example, looking at the work PH-414, a work created in 1934/35, there are clear ties to Grant Wood’s iconic American Regionalist 1930 painting, American Gothic. Both works incorporate figures looking directly out to the viewer in a frontal and centralized composition, however Wood’s work emphasizes similar forms in the people and the tools they are holding (the pitchfork for example is echoed in the stitching of the farmer’s overalls) to emphasize the region while Still instead chose to emphasize the psychological aspects of his figures by painting them with exaggerated features. For Still, painting was not a way to reproduce the world around him (in short, the European tradition), rather he would paint to emphasize the emotional feelings regarding his subject. As a result in his many paintings depicting farm workers he cast them as elongated, emaciated figures, worked tirelessly until their faces have grown long and their bodies have begun to show bones peeking through thin flesh. These works would reflect the psychological conditions encountered by many during the Great Depression.  Still’s initial fascination with an emotional depiction of human forms was to be his first foray into abstraction with his series of works depicting the workers becoming one with the tools they use. Two works from this era seem particularly telling in how Still began conceiving his ideas in a more abstract way. In PH-343 (1937) a diptych composition juxtaposes man, a soft conglomerate of flesh and bone shapes against machine, a dense linear composition of elements taken from farming tools. While initially separate, these two subjects would then combine in PH-753 (1938), in which the organic bone-like shapes become part of the linear conjunction of lines in a vertical composition. This last aspect of verticality had already manifested itself in Still’s work from the 20’s and again in the 30’s when his figures became looming towers in defiance to predominately horizontal features. It was around this time that Clyfford Still began to develop his style-defining exploration of the relationship between life and verticality, death and horizontality.

As Still grew older, his work followed suit. His recognizable human forms began to morph into more totemic symbols, reminiscent of bones and other ritualistic forms. It is clear that Still has begun to work with an aspect that has been present since his earliest work, the vertical. Despite a darkening of his color pallet, Still’s work from the 40’s still retains sculpted swaths of bright color, thrown on with his signature pallet knife and his subject matter has simply taken another form. In one such work, PH-751, painted in 1944, Still has completely abstracted his totemic forms, reminiscent of his earlier work with machines and the figure, into a sense of architectural space rising into the sky. Also reflected in this painting is Still’s development towards irregular swaths of color, seen towards the center of this work in the rising, jagged edged plumes of color. At this point in his life, Clyfford Still had begun to achieve great things as an artist, taking the art world by storm with his earliest colorfield paintings, exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1946. These works, right on the cusp of Still’s true breakthrough would inspire the first generation of abstract expressionists such as Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. However, Still was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the art world and its critics, despite his apparent popularity.

Abstract Expressionism was just reaching its peak in the 1950’s with artists such as Jackson Pollock, De Kooning and Mark Rothko (a close friend of Still) taking center stage, in essence becoming celebrity artists. Still however, chose to avoid the praise as he felt that his work was not part of any school of painting or movement for that matter. It would be this decision that eventually led to his withdrawal from the art world in 1951. Unfortunately for the art world, it was also during this period that Still would begin to create his most prolific works. PH-118, painted in 1947 would mark the beginning of total abstraction and the end of identifiable figurative forms. In this piece, a black flame of paint rises up from the corner to confront almost angel-like figures that seem to be flying in battle around the swirling darkness. Almost biblical in its depiction, the painting is more than a vague scene, it contains an emotion. This aspect is what makes Still’s work so monumental, he was able to translate the emotional feeling into non-representational images that have the power to affect people from diverse backgrounds.

During his absence from the art world, Still continued to paint, albeit without the restrictions imposed by a movement and without critics to comment on his every brushstroke. These later works would occasionally be seen in small contributions Still made to various art museums across the country, but never would the full scope of Still’s will to paint be exhibited until after his death in 1980. While Clyfford still may have joined the eternal horizontal, his works remain as powerful vertical testaments to the human condition of life and deat

4 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your perception of painting PH-118. “Almost biblical in its depiction, the painting is more than a vague scene, it contains an emotion.” I responded particularly to this piece as well. The dancing abstraction of paint application serves as an inkblot effect for a varied visual experience. After reading your perception and examining the painting, I cannot help but to picture a holy war of angelic figures struggling for recognition. The way the colors play in this painting are amazing! Good eye good sir!

  2. Really well written and informative paper Jackson. When I came across PH-118 on Sunday, I couldn’t help but see that “angel battlescene” you told me about beforehand. There is even a distinguable facial silouhette on the “demon” figure near the top. Whether or not we’re just imposing our thoughts onto these shapes like a rorschach, there is still a clear sense of conflict between the black and white masses of color on the canvas.

    • I love this angel battlescene you mention in PH-118. Not only is it something I love doing with abstract works (most likely against the artists’ hopes for the viewing experience), but I think it is especially applicable to the works of Clyfford Still. With all of his epic quotes about life and death merging in a fearful union, the existence of the paintings as spirits and verticality as an essential part of life as a human, there is plenty of fuel for imagination. I wonder though if he would enjoy or detest the cloud watching approach to his canvasses.

  3. Wow, PH-118 totally stuck with me as well but I definitely didn’t see the angelic battle the way you did. I like that interpretation though it’s an interesting new way to see the piece. I thought of the color fields as characters themselves. The Black is this dominating force spreading across the canvas while the yellow frantic writhes away from it. The little white shapes seem like distant stars unaware of the danger, and the red is waiting for the encroaching black sprawl.

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